House budget bill leans toward greater Minnesota

Anzelc lobbies Fabian

By Don Davis

Much of the money in the Minnesota House’s plan to tweak the state’s two-year budget would go to greater Minnesota.

“We focused on rural Minnesota and greater Minnesota,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said, because many rural parts of the state have not recovered from the recession as well as the Twin Cities.

The House passed the bill 70-59 late Thursday to add $322 million to the $39 billion, two-year state budget enacted last year.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the budget plan is one “Democrats are pushing like drugs on the House floor. They can’t spend enough.”

Provisions aimed at areas outside the Twin Cities include those giving a 5 percent increase to home health care providers, pumping more into rural nursing homes that pay employees $14 an hour or less, adding money to elderly meal programs that mostly serve rural Minnesotans, setting up grants to develop high-speed Internet connections, putting $6 million more into greater Minnesota economic development efforts, increasing spending more for highway repairs and creating a center to fight invasive plants and animals moving into the state.

When they were briefing the media on the budget bill, Democratic House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and Murphy Paul frequently pointed out items that would help rural or greater Minnesota.

For instance, they said, in approving $25 million for broadband Internet improvements, a fraction of what supporters wanted, businesses in areas of slow Internet coverage could become competitive with places that enjoy faster service.

“Expanded access to broadband Internet access is critical for greater Minnesota,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth. “If we want businesses to set up shop and expand in our communities, we need to provide them the resources they need in order to be successful. But in many areas of the state, high-speed Internet access just isn’t an option.”

Murphy denied that the rural emphasis is an attempt to improve Democratic chances in this year’s elections. At least seven rural House districts now held by Democrats are considered to be in play this year.

Overall, the bill divides the $322 million it spends several ways:

– $92 million for education, including raising public school funding $58 per pupil, adding money to school lunch programs and reducing special education paperwork.

– $91 million to health needs, including increasing funds 5 percent for care providers who serve patients at home, raising rural nursing home payments and assisting mostly rural elderly meal programs.

– $37 million for economic development, including the broadband grants and $6 million for six greater Minnesota economic development programs.

– $50 million for transportation, half of which would go to fill potholes after a winter that has been tough on roads.

– $36 million for public safety, especially sending more to the Corrections Department.

– $16 million for agriculture and the environment to fight invasive species moving into Minnesota and help fund locally grown food for food shelves.

The Senate Finance Committee plans to finish its budget proposal today. It could come up for debate early next week.

Added money for home health care providers follows last year’s 5 percent increase in nursing home funding.

Rep. Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, said funds for rural nursing homes need to increase because the expected passage of a $9.50-an-hour minimum wage would affect them since many workers do not receive the minimum wage.

Some new money the Corrections Department would receive is to pay county jails to house up to 500 prisoners. Rep. Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul, said the department underestimated the number of prisoners it would house this year.

As a snowstorm headed toward St. Paul, Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said his transportation funding provisions include $15 million to help local governments fill potholes after a rough winter, with another $10 million destined for the state to do the same.

Hornstein’s bill also provides $10 million for the Corridors of Commerce highway repair program that mostly would go to greater Minnesota roads.

Also in the bill is a provision to increase an assessment on railroads and add one on pipelines to fund $2.5 million worth of more training that first responders such as firefighters need to battle crude oil accidents.

The House voted to ban state funds for abortions and to prohibit an abortion of a fetus more than 20 weeks old. Most of the nearly 100 amendment proposals were rejected.

Republicans repeatedly tried to pass amendments to change the MNsure health insurance exchange, but Democrats would not allow most to be debated.

Legislative notebook: TV commercial blasts Dayton medical marijuana stand

A group supporting medical marijuana is buying television commercial time to attack Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s opposition to a bill stalled in the Legislature.

The spot features a St. Paul mother and her 5-year-old son who suffers from seizures that medical marijuana advocates say could be eased if the plant were allowed to be used.

The commercial by Minnesotans for Compassionate Care was scheduled to air during Wednesday’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Show,” then to be on some Thursday morning shows.

The organization on Thursday plans to deliver a petition to Dayton’s office signed by more than 4,900 Minnesotans calling for him to allow the medical marijuana bill to advance.

The bill by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, stalled in a legislative committee after Dayton said he would not sign a bill allowing plant marijuana to be used to treat seizures and extreme pain, two things advocates say marijuana could ease.

Dayton said he cannot support Melin’s bill until law enforcement and medical organizations back it.

Law enforcement groups oppose the bill because it would allow the marijuana plant to be used. They say they could back the bill if it were changed only to use chemicals from the plant as medicine.

Medical groups oppose the measure because marijuana has not undergone extensive scientific tests as required by other medicines. Dayton proposed that Mayo Clinic conduct such an extensive study to see how a marijuana extract affect 200 children with seizures.

The commercial can be seen at http://youtu.be/vdn5NO2s0Nk.

 

Bill passes to protect data

Minnesota senators unanimously passed a bill to crack down on public employees who improperly use individuals’ private data, such as driver’s licenses.

“It does provide some accountability,” Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said, before the 66-0 vote.

The Senate-passed bill is slightly different than one the House passed 132-0 last year, so the House must reconsider the bill before it heads to the governor for his signature.

Dibble’s bill follows reports about various public employees with access to driver’s licenses looked at information when with no official reason. Many of those accused of improperly calling up the data were men who looked at private information of well-known women such as television news reporters.

While the Dibble bill would increase penalties for improper access, he added that “more work is going to have to be done at some point in the future.”

The measure requires that private data only is available who need it for their jobs, and they can only access it while on duty.

 

Retirement funds would get aid

Minnesota legislators are looking into ways to help two teacher retirement funds.

An overall pension bill that nears a full House vote would provide $15 million a year to ensure a successful merger of the financially troubled Duluth Teachers Retirement Fund Association and the Teachers Retirement Association, an organization serving teachers across the state. The bill also would provide $7 million annually to keep the St. Paul Teachers Retirement Fund Association fiscally sound.

The money involved with the Duluth fund would continue for 24 years. Leaders of that fund have told lawmakers that a better financial picture is doubtful because more retirees are getting benefits than there are current teachers to fund the system.

 

Disability aid part of big bill

Rep. Rod Hamilton lost a Wednesday effort to allow Minnesota representatives to vote on raising state aid to people who care for the disabled.

On a 68-59 vote, the House rejected the Mountain Lake Republican’s proposal to immediately debate and vote on the plan to increase funding 5 percent for home health care providers. That means the provision will be voted on Thursday as part of a budget bill that updates a $39 billion, two-year budget lawmakers passed a year ago.

The Thursday bill includes all budget changes, such as increasing funding for transportation, education and other programs.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said that the usual way to alter an already-passed budget, including when Republicans controlled the House, is to lump all budget changes in one big bill.

“Let’s have a clean vote,” Hamilton responded.

Republicans generally support the 5 percent increase, but could be tempted to vote against the budget bill because they oppose much of the new spending it contains.

“We are being forced to choose whether or not we can support every word in a 600-page bill simply because we support people with disabilities,” Hamilton said.

Judge wants change, Minnesota sex offender program remains same

By Don Davis

A federal judge’s pressure on Minnesota officials to change how the state deals with sex offenders does not appear to be producing results.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday that he does not expect this year’s Legislature to act on the situation, and legislative leaders Friday showed no indication the governor is wrong.

That comes after Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a court order: “The time for legislative action is now.”

If state leaders do not take action, Frank could take control of the Minnesota sex offender treatment program, where serious sex offenders are kept in prison-like settings after serving their prison sentences. Former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and others who are urging lawmakers to act say Frank could order changes in the program — changes that could result in much higher costs to the state — or he could order release of at least some sex offenders.

Just one sex offender has graduated from the program, leading to a lawsuit by others who say the program is more prison than treatment.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, downplayed the possibility that Frank will take over the program. He said that Frank’s order for the state to fund four experts’ study of the program should take some time, and lawmakers may not need to act right away.

However, he and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said they hope for a bipartisan agreement on the issue.

That does not appear close. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he thinks the current treatment program is constitutional, although he could support some changes.

Since Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office, Daudt said, they are the ones who should lead on the issue.

Murphy said that state leaders not agreeing on the solution hurts their efforts.

“When people chose to politicize this issue, it tends to confuse Minnesotans,” she said.

Dayton blamed House Republicans for failure to come together, adding, “I don’t think anything else is going to happen this session.”

“It is not going to proceed without broad bipartisan support,” Dayton told reporters Thursday. “It is just not going to happen now. … We will come back next session, if I am still around.”

However, he added, Frank could take away Minnesota’s options before next year.

Daudt said Democrats may not have come up with a plan, but he thinks he knows their desire: “They seem set on letting these people out.”

Frank issued his latest order five days before the Legislature convened last month.

“If the evidence requires it, the court will act,” Frank wrote. “But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws — within the limits of the Constitution — that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class.”

How to deal with sex offenders has been a major state Capitol issue since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall on Nov. 22, 2003. The next April, her body was found near Crookston, Minn. A sex offender who had served his prison time was convicted of her kidnapping and murder.

The crime set Minnesota politicians on a quest to find ways to keep sex offenders behind bars longer. One of the ways was to make more use of an existing program that allows county prosecutors to ask judges to put offenders into the treatment program.

The program is housed at state hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

House passes $500 million tax cut; Dayton wants more cuts, Senate less

Lenczewski, Murphy

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House passed a $500 million tax cut Thursday and the governor announced he wants to trim taxes $616 million, but the Senate is headed for smaller cuts.

Democrats said the bill representatives passed 126-2 would provide tax relief to nearly 1 million Minnesotans, in a large part by matching most Minnesota tax law to federal law. That “federal conformity” means $301 million less Minnesotans would pay.

Federal conformity would lower taxes on married couples $115 on average because federal law taxes married couples less than Minnesota law. That would go to 650,000 couples, mostly those who earn less than $75,000 annually.

The bill also would provide an average tax cut of $300 to low-income Minnesotans who file for the working family credit.

The House voted to cancel taxes placed on businesses last year: warehouse storage, farm equipment repair, some business equipment repair and telecommunications equipment.

The bill also simplifies and cuts the estate tax and provides some tax credits to people who invest in new companies and high-technology businesses. Gov. Mark Dayton would like to add a few more tax cuts.

House Democrats and Democrat Dayton said their tax-cut plans especially help middle-class Minnesotans.

Money to fund the tax cuts comes from a $1.2 billion budget surplus state financial officials announced a week ago. Dayton on Thursday said he wants half of that surplus to be used as tax cuts, $162 million for what he calls additional “essential” spending and the rest going to enlarge the state budget reserve.

House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington, said her tax bill mostly deals with taxes being collected now, or soon will be. She and Dayton said that is why quick action is needed.

“This is the time-sensitive stuff we need to do right now,” she said.

Dayton said he will keep the pressure on senators for quick action.

House leaders said a second tax bill may include further tax cuts, including some property tax relief.

Not so fast, Sen. Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

While it is important that the state match federal law, the Senate Taxes Committee chairman said, there is no need to rush.

“I would rather move a little slower to make sure we get things right,” Skoe said.

Skoe said the Senate could pass a tax-cut bill by the end of the month.

However, he does not agree with House leaders and the governor who want a second tax-cut bill. In fact, he added, the House $500 million bill cuts too much.

Skoe said he was especially happy with Dayton’s proposal to increase the state budget reserve $445 million, to more than $1 billion.

“We have had 10, 12 years going from one deficit to another,” Skoe said, and a bigger reserve is needed in case that happens again.

Skoe would not say what tax cuts he wants to see in the Senate bill.

House Republicans criticized Democrats for raising taxes $2.3 billion last year, and coming back this year with a $500 million tax cut. They said that still is a $1.8 billion net tax increase.

Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, a GOP governor candidate, said a gift tax enacted last year hurt farmers who wanted to hand farms down to their children. He said that lack of consistency is hard on Minnesotans.

Even though they complained about Democratic taxes, Republicans liked the cut.

“The best thing we can do with this surplus is to put it back in the pockets of those who need it most,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said last year’s tax increases, mostly on rich Minnesotans, allowed the state to increase education funding and provide more aid to local governments. The changes improved the state economy, Democrats said.

“Today, we have the opportunity to take another step forward,” Murphy said.

The only two who voted against the bill were Democratic Reps. Jason Metsa of Virginia and Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley.

Metsa said he voted against the bill because he would rather see money spent for property tax relief, nursing homes and state aid to local governments. For Winkler, the vote was because “the tax cuts were too large and not the right priorities for Minnesota this year.”

One Minnesota or all-Minneapolis ticket?

Smith, Dayton

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton leads an all-Minnesota or all-Minneapolis Democratic ticket in the 2014 election campaign, depending on who is telling the story.

Tuesday’s announcement of Tina Smith as his running mate drew immediate criticism from Republicans and questions from political reporters accustomed to seeing attempts to geographically balance governor-lieutenant governor tickets.

Dayton and Smith said they look at the state as one and tried to downplay the fact that both are from Minneapolis. Dayton lived in Minneapolis before moving to the official governor’s residence in St. Paul.

In her speech at the campaign rally, Smith mentioned Dayton’s efforts to help sugar beet growers in western Minnesota and Duluth flood victims.

“I think people make too much of these differences,” Smith said later. “We are representing all of Minnesota, not just parts of Minnesota.”

The governor played up his travels around the state.

“For 37 years, I have been traveling around the state,” Dayton said. “I have traveled around the state more than any politician right now. I know this state.”

Republicans immediately attacked Dayton’s pick.

Long-time GOP activist Ben Golnik, now head of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, called the Democratic ticket the most liberal in Minnesota history. He said Dayton “has turned his back on the nearly 5 million Minnesotans who don’t live in the City of Lakes.”

The only Republican governor candidate from outside the Twin Cities, former state lawmaker Marty Seifert of Marshall, said that Dayton’s pick sent a message.

“While the policies of Mark Dayton’s first term have already put greater Minnesota on the back burner, his selection of another Minneapolis resident for the 2014 (lieutenant governor) position only confirms that this disregard for Minnesotans outside of the urban core will continue,” Seifert said.

Democrats praised the choice.

“With the selection of Tina Smith, Gov. Dayton has chosen a lieutenant governor candidate with business savvy, Minnesota roots and extensive experience in working with Minnesotans from across the state,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy of St. Paul said.

Smith will replace Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth as Dayton seeks a second term this fall. Prettner Solon, who was not at Tuesday’s announcement, complained last summer that she was not part of the administration and last month announced she would not seek a second term with Dayton.

“Her success comes from bringing people together,” Dayton said about Smith, 55, who worked behind the scenes on a stadium construction plan and to lay the groundwork for state funding to help Rochester prepare for an expanded Mayo Clinic.

Before joining the Dayton administration, Smith was chief of staff to then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Smith began her career at General Mills, founded a marketing and communications firm that served foundations and businesses and is a veteran of dozens of local, state and national political campaigns.

Smith immediately resigned her chief of staff job so she can begin campaigning around the state. Deputy Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher will replace her.

Democrats leave session with issues they still want to do

End of session chatter

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

There is little doubt the 2013 Minnesota Legislature will be remembered for its historic vote to allow gay marriage and a $2 billion tax increase.

Democrats say the session that ended seconds before its midnight Monday adjournment deadline also will be remembered for “investing” in education, jobs and other key state programs. Republicans claim Democrats overreached when they gained control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time in 22 years by hiking taxes too much, handing unions too much power and spending more than the state should.

But even if Democratic-Farmer-Laborites overreached, they did not accomplish everything they wanted.

Take the minimum wage. Democrats wanted to raise it from the current $6.15 an hour. Senators voted to up it to $7.75, and the House and Gov. Mark Dayton preferred something north of $9.

It became too sticky a subject to finish as the legislative session ended. But House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said it would be atop their to-do list when lawmakers return to St. Paul on Feb. 25.

Bakk said he would encourage legislative minimum wage negotiators to spend time before the next session to talk to businesses about what would work.

The speaker also said the 2014 priority list should include more infrastructure funding, especially for transportation and transit projects.

Dayton said he was disappointed an $800 million public works finance bill failed this year, and indicated he would push a big bill next year to help create thousands of jobs.

Next session also may be a time to make changes to provisions lawmakers passed in the past few days.

For instance, DFL leaders have sent strong signals that they will look to provisions in a tax bill that added sales taxes to some business purchases.

“We need to find out what some of the unintended consequences may be,” Bakk said.

Tax bill writers delayed implementation of some of the provisions until April, giving them time to rewrite what is needed.

The bill senators passed was supposed to exempt farm equipment repair from the new tax, Bakk said, but it did not. Also, farmers could be charged tax when buying fertilizer stored in facilities they do not own.

Other industries also could face issues with the new warehouse sales tax.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said companies need to know about their tax future, and firms such as Red Wing Shoes must make decisions and not wait until April to see if the tax changes.

Rural Republican lawmakers have lots of concerns with the sales tax being added to farm purchases and said they are not sure just what might be taxed.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she hopes a bill designed to prevent school bullying will come back and pass next year.

The 2013 session, which began Jan. 8, wrapped up with almost no time to spare even though Democrats control state government for the first time in 22 years.

Among the final bills lawmakers passed is one to allow some day care providers and personal care attendants to join unions. The House vote ended in shouting, in the most dramatic episode in the House this year.

On Tuesday, Democrats patted themselves on the back for a job well done in 2013. They praised their work on increasing education funding, reforming taxes, lowering property taxes and raising what the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners pay the state.

However, in briefing reporters, the governor and legislative leaders never mentioned two of the most contentious issues that brought thousands of people to the state Capitol: the unionization vote and legalizing same-sex marriage.

Right after the Legislature adjourned, Bakk highlighted funding all-day kindergarten and some tax reforms such as eliminating sales tax counties and cities pay as top achievements of the session.

He said the Democratic budget plan makes important investments and provides stability.

“It’s going to leave Minnesota a better place,” Bakk said.

He also said funding state Capitol renovation work was a priority for him.

“I wasn’t going home without the Capitol renovations,” Bakk said.

Republicans were not happy with the session.

“This budget’s going to be tough on everybody,” said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.

He said lawmakers did not need to pass such a large tax increase to fill a $627 million budget deficit.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Democrats went too far: “If I would use one word to describe the session, it would be ‘overreach.’ ”

Thissen said that if Republicans want to call DFL action overreach, he can accept it.

“I think Minnesotans actually want government officials that want to set an ambitious agenda,” Thissen said. “If that is overreaching, being ambitious, that is what it is.”

Capitol, floods, veterans, disaster bills end 2013 legislative session

Thissen gavels out session

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Legislature ended a historic 2013 session seconds before midnight Monday after voting to renovate the state Capitol building, help communities fight floods, give veterans a new facility and provide disaster assistance.

It was an end to a session that approved gay marriage, increased taxes $2 billion and boosted spending for education and other priorities of Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office.

“We had a tough session,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said, but there were many bills that passed with bipartisan support.

“We can have strong disagreements and still keep the conversation civil,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

“Tomorrow everybody’s going to try to put their political spin on it,” Bakk added. “But I’m very proud.”

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said that while Republicans accuse Democrats of overreaching this year, his party did what it could to catch up after 10 years of budget cuts.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said Democrats and Republicans worked together to end the session. Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Republicans brought the two parties together to wrap things up.

After working leisurely much of Monday, the pace kicked into high gear after 9 p.m.

The key to the session-ending deal is a $177 million public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds. Once House and Senate leaders from both parties agreed to the bonding bill, a day-long logjam broke, allowing other bills to pass quickly with little debate.

The House passed the public works bill 121-10 and the Senate 57-6. Last week, the House defeated an $800 million proposal with opponents saying it was too big.

The largest portion of the bonding bill is fixing the state Capitol, a $132 million expenditure. More money will be needed in future years to complete the project.

“Our Capitol is the symbol of Minnesota, let it stand solid and strong to serve generations of Minnesotans long into the future…” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said. “This building has no lobbyist, it has us, and we must not let it down.”

The 108-year-old building’s walls are crumbling and state officials say mechanical systems need to be replaced.

Also in the bill is $20 million for flood prevention projects, $19 million for a Minneapolis Veterans’ Home building and $8 million for various sewage projects. Some previously approved bonds no longer needed are canceled.

Once the bonding bill passed, the door opened for spending $1.75 million to help southwestern Minnesota recover from an April ice storm.

Federal funds will pay three-fourths of the public property damage repair.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, told senators there is $6 million in public property damage, but more than $20 million in damage overall.

The bonding bill also looks to prevent future disasters. It spends $20 million for flood prevention work in Ada, Afton, Alvarado, Argyle, Austin, Borup, Breckenridge, Browntown, Climax, Crookston, Delano, Granite Falls, Inver Grove Heights, Maynard, Melrose, Minneota, Minnesota River area, Montevideo, Moorhead, Newport Nielsville, Oakport Township, Oslo, Roseau, Rushford, St. Vincent and Shelley. The bill says Moorhead should get priority for funds needs.

While the Capitol is the headline project in the bonding bill, a $22.7 million parking ramp nearby also is funded.

As time ran out on the session, a 10-hour debate, spread over the last three days, about allowing some child care providers and personal care attendants to join unions ended with conflict.

Thissen announced that the bill won on a 68-66 vote, prompting loud applause and cheers from union supporters in the House gallery. Such demonstrations violate House rules.

Thissen began to gavel down the demonstration, sternly yelling: “Stop, stop.”

Several Republicans began to protest the demonstration and Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, jumped up and shouted into his microphone: “Just let them applaud, they own the place.”

Republicans often said during the unionization debate that Democrats were pushing the bill to reward their union supporters.

In its final days, the Legislature passed bills to:

– Raise taxes $2 billion.

– Fund the state $38 billion, two-year budget.

– Allow same-sex couples to marry.

– Fund arts and outdoors programs from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008.

– Ask Minnesotans to vote to constitutionally establish a council to set legislators’ pay because, as Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said, it is a conflict of interest for lawmakers to raise their own pay.

New income taxes will be placed on the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners, cigarette taxes increased and sales taxes charged on some business purchases.

Lawmakers wrapped up most of Democrats’ priorities as they neared their deadline. But they also left undone other priorities such as a school anti-bullying bill, a minimum wage increase and gun control.

Reporter Danielle Killey contributed to this story.

Budget pieces slowly begin moving toward governor’s office

Rep. Paul Marquart

By Don Davis

Minnesota legislators have taken baby steps in passing a $38 billion, two-year budget that must be finished by midnight Monday.

The biggest step so far was set to come late Friday or early Saturday as the House edged toward approving money for state-subsidized health programs, the second-largest part of the state budget.

“I think we have time to get the budget bills done,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said even as Republicans complained that the Legislature was debating nonbudget bills.

“I’m concerned that with the amount of time left in the legislative session, we may not have enough time for public input and debate on these important bills,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

Budget bills headed for Gov. Mark Dayton’s approval fund public safety, judiciary, higher education and economic development programs.

Much of the budget still was being negotiated among the Democratic-controlled House and Senate and Democratic governor’s office, including measures to fund natural resources, agriculture, public schools, various state agencies and transportation.

Some of the budget became clearer Friday. Murphy said she doubted gasoline taxes would rise, as some proposed. She also said legislative pay likely will not be increased.

A bill raising $2 billion in taxes remained in negotiators’ hands late Friday, but Dayton and legislative leaders gave them instructions to raise income taxes on the highest-paid Minnesotans, add a sales tax to some business services and raise cigarette taxes.

The House began a debate late Friday to fund state health programs for the elderly and disabled.

Supporters of nursing homes and other long-term care organizations said the health and human services bill averts a crisis.

The bill increases nursing home funding 5 percent in the first year of the next budget cycle and 1.5 percent in the second year.

Still, long-term care supporters say the work is not over to find sustainable funding for years to come.

“Every year that we put off discussions and decisions on sustainable long-term care funding will only make the problem more difficult to solve,” President Gayle Kvenvold of Aging Services of Minnesota said. “The state’s current funding approach is already strained.”

Earlier Friday, the House defeated a plan to spend $800 million on public works projects across the state. The vote was 76-56, but bills funded by the state selling bonds need 81 votes.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the bonding bill and a proposed constitutional amendment that filled Friday afternoon are “distractions” from setting the state’s budget. The constitutional amendment would remove the decision about legislators’ pay from the Legislature.

The House plans to take a break from the budget for a time Saturday, perhaps a long time.

Nearly 100 amendments have been filed for a bill to allow child care providers and personal care attendants to join unions. There were fewer amendments than that when senators debated the bill, a debate that stretched 17 hours before it passed 35-32.

Murphy said she will use “all of the tools in the toolbox” to shorten debate if Republicans venture into filibuster territory instead of what she considers legitimate debate.

Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, sponsored the legislative pay amendment.

“This isn’t a bill about giving legislators a pay raise,” he said. “It is about being transparent.”

Daudt said there was no need to take up the bill this year because Metsa’s plan calls for voters to consider the measure in 2016, leaving three more legislative sessions where it could be debated.

Daudt and other Republicans raised their voices during the pay debate.

“Uff-da. I think the caps lock was on there,” Murphy said.

Divide remains between rural Republicans, House leaders

Murphy, Marquart

By Danielle Killey

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy and Rep. Paul Marquart stood side-by-side Tuesday introducing House Democrats’ education funding plan.

Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, praised Marquart’s work as education finance chairman: “He has done such a fantastic job.”

Indeed, politics can make unexpected allies.

Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, had challenged Murphy to lead the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus after last November’s elections. Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis was elected House speaker, and Marquart said he wanted to make sure rural Minnesota was represented in leadership.

Marquart lost the leadership contest, but said he was pleased to land the job as education finance chairman. His committee decides the budget for the state’s largest spending area.

Marquart said he was relieved when he saw many other rural members named to committee leadership spots as well, allaying some concerns about a lack of input from greater Minnesota that many members outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area raised as the legislative session began.

“I thought, ‘here’s where the balance is,’” Marquart said.

Some rural lawmakers still are not convinced.

“I think we’re left behind, definitely,” Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said of rural Minnesotans under Democratic budget plans.

She said the proposals do not address real needs outside the Twin Cities area and could hurt small businesses and farmers.

“I think they need to re-examine their priorities,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said of Democrats. “I definitely have concerns.”

Many rural Republican lawmakers cited recent approval of the environment and agriculture finance bill, which included water usage fee increases, an example of plans they say will disproportionately impact greater Minnesota.

Before the legislative session began, Republican lawmakers said agriculture funding would be overshadowed by other issues when it was joined with environment and natural resources for finance talks, and they were not happy with the result.

The bill passed without any Republican votes.

“I think this is one of the first times we have had a lack of bipartisan support there,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. “I just don’t think this is a common-sense approach to how things work in rural Minnesota.”

Murphy said Democrats intentionally aimed for significant rural committee leadership overall to ensure those voices would be heard and said the budget plan reflects that.

“I think Minnesota as a whole will experience the benefits,” Murphy said. “We pay a lot of attention to different areas of the state.”

“We said we’re not going to play games with the budget anymore,” Marquart said. “That leads to balancing it on the backs of rural Minnesota often.”

Marquart said those Republicans concerned about rural Minnesota should look at the difference from the past two years, when the GOP controlled the Legislature.

“Rural Minnesota took a hit,” Marquart said. “We reversed some of those things.”

“I think the overall budget is excellent for rural Minnesota,” he added, citing his education finance bill, property tax relief and a 3 percent increase in funding for nursing homes. “I would say, look at the results.”

Thissen said a possible public works borrowing bill also would include funding toward important projects in rural Minnesota.

Kiel acknowledged some rural cities might see more state funds from changes to Local Government Aid and property tax relief plans. But she said proposed alcohol and cigarette taxes, the water fee increases, education requirements and other policies would cost more than any benefit those communities might see.

“Even if we raise LGA, we’re going to turn around and spend it and charge more money,” she said.

Kiel said other Democratic proposals such as raising the minimum wage will hit rural Minnesota harder than the metro as well. “That’s going to be detrimental to businesses.”

Leaders “truly think they’re trying” to keep rural Minnesota in mind, Kiel said.

Murphy grew up around agriculture and said she has farmers in her family. She said she understands the ag industry’s strength is essential to the state’s success.

But top concerns are different from rural to metro areas, Kiel said, and it is hard to advocate for both.

“If everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority,” Hamilton said.

Marquart said he thinks Thissen and other leaders have “made a concerted effort to make sure the results are beneficial for rural Minnesota.”

“We know if greater Minnesota succeeds, we’ll all succeed,” Thissen said.

Hamilton said the final results of the session remain to be seen in the last few weeks, and Democratic leaders still will be in place next year, the second of a two-year legislative session.

More policy issues likely will come up then, Anderson said, and the impacts on the state outside the metro area might be clearer.

“There could be a lot more issues that are near and dear to rural Minnesota,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of a two-year trial here.”

 Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

Legislative notebook: Transportation debate centers on bike lane parking

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

Minnesota Senators approved a bill 48-19 Tuesday that sets state transportation policies over some rural lawmakers’ concerns about a provision banning parking in bicycle lanes.

“Bike lanes are not standard throughout the state,” Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said.

He said many of the lanes outside the Twin Cities metro area are along the edge of roads and blocking them would eliminate the bulk of parking options. Members unsuccessfully tried to amend the provision to only apply in Minneapolis.

Transportation and Public Safety Committee chairman Scott Dibble said allowing parking defeats the purpose of the bicycle lanes as a safe route for riders.

“A vehicle parked in that lane can create extremely dangerous situations,” he said.

Some lawmakers wondered why various transportation projects in their areas were not included.

“I am reluctant to stick those specific projects in statute,” Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, did add an amendment to the transportation bill  requiring the re-routing plan for U.S. Highway 53 near Virginia, Minn., to be one of two generally accepted paths rather than a third, referred to as the westerly option.

Tomassoni said that route would skip some towns in the area and make many trips along the road longer, including for emergency vehicles, school transit and business access.

The road must be moved because a mining company that owns the land plans to use it..

Lawmakers also accepted an amendment that would keep speeding violations on Interstate 35E in St. Paul from downtown to West Seventh Street off driving records if drivers are ticketed for going less than 10 miles per hour over the limit.

The speed limit there is 45 mph, and lawmakers have worked for years to raise it.

The bill also names Officer Tom Decker Memorial Highway along Minnesota Highway 23 and clarifies some state laws, such as that school bus drivers are prohibited from operating cell phones when the bus is on the road, even if it is stopped.

Health bill passes

Minnesota representatives spent more than nine hours debating how to spend $13 billion on health programs in the next two years.

“This budget reflects the priorities of Minnesotans,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said during debate that ended late Monday. “We have to keep steady pressure on this area of the budget.”

Democratic legislative leaders ordered a $150 million cut in the budget, most of which funds health programs for the elderly, disabled and poor. Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, wrote into the bill an added surcharge on Minnesota hospital receipts to help fill in for the cut.

Republicans complained that the bill did too little to help nursing homes, despite a 3 percent funding increase with 75 percent of the new money going to employee raises.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, summarized reaction to the DFL-written bill: “I’m stunned.”

“Democrats are handing out more money in every single budget area except this one, except human services,” Daudt said.

A few amendments were added to the bill, including one on a 71-62 vote that would require abortion clinics to be state licensed. Supporters said it is needed to keep patients safe.

Drug test lawmakers

Minnesota representatives voted to test themselves for drugs and alcohol.

On a 119-12 vote, they agreed with Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, that lawmakers should be tested “to the extent practicable” and must provide evidence of a negative test before receiving any pay or expense reimbursements.

Representatives tacked the provision onto another amendment by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, that would require such tests before Minnesotans receive welfare payments.

The Drazkowski amendment, with lawmaker provision attached, passed 83-49. It was on an overall health-care funding bill.

While representatives approved the provisions, they are not included in Senate or Gov. Mark Dayton proposals.

The full health care funding bill, spending $13 billion the next two years, passed late Monday.

Update: Tax routes outlined

Hann

By Danielle Killey

Minnesota lawmakers now have three distinct tax proposals to consider with release of a Senate Democratic plan that includes an income tax hike, sales tax changes and property tax relief.

Senate Democrats unveiled a proposal Tuesday that would increase income tax for married Minnesota couples who make about $141,000 or more taxable income. They also would lower the sales tax rate while expanding what is taxed to include clothing and other goods and some services.

The proposal does not create a new income tax bracket, like the governor’s and House’s proposals, but would increase the top tax rate from 7.85 percent to 9.4 percent. That would bring in $1.2 billion of the $1.8 billion new revenue the state would net under the total tax plan.

“When this bill becomes law, we will accomplish the goals of the session, to balance the budget over the next four years,” Tax Committee Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said.

Minnesota has a projected $627 million deficit for the next two years and lawmakers want to boost education and other spending.

The third tier change would affect about 6 percent of Minnesota taxpayers directly, Skoe said.

The plan would reduce the state sales tax more than a percentage point and tax clothing and other goods and services. It is a scaled-down version of a sales tax proposal Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton made, then dropped in the face of strong legislative and public opposition.

“The philosophy was really to modernize the tax system,” Skoe said. “This matches the purchasing patterns of Minnesota.”

“It’s bringing stability to the sales tax system,” Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said.

Lower income earners would get a credit on their income taxes to help offset the clothing tax cost, Rest said.

Skoe proposes increasing the cigarette tax, also included in the House and governor’s plans. The Senate bill does not include an alcohol tax House members propose.

Skoe’s plan includes updates to the Local Government Aid formula and more state money for cities, counties and townships. It would eliminate state sales taxes cities and counties pay.

“We’re trying to attack property taxes at the source” with the changes, Skoe said. “I think there’s significant property tax relief in here.”

Republicans said the bill would hurt middle class Minnesotans.

“This is not a tax on the wealthy, it’s a tax on everybody,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said. “Before we raise another dime in taxes from Minnesotans, we should be going line-by-line through our state budget and cut wasteful government spending.”

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said there is not much support for the Senate tax bill among House Democrats.

“There is a lot of support for the proposal we put forth,” she added, which she said was drawn up after talking to Minnesotans.

The House bill would create a fourth tier rate of 8.49 percent for couples making more than $400,000 a year in taxable income and add a temporary surcharge on couples’ income more than $500,000.

The governor’s plan would tax couples making more than $250,000 at 9.85 percent.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said Democrats have sold their income tax increase as only affecting the wealthy, but the Senate proposal does more than that.

“To the extent that there was an effort to tax the rich, I think this is not it. This is a failure,” she said. “It’s a huge imposition on middle class taxpayers.”

Skoe said fellow Democrat senators had questions, but the plan generally was well received.

“It will pass,” Rest said.

 Reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.

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These are some highlights of the bill.

– Third tier income tax rate increase to 9.4 percent from 7.85 percent; affects married couples making $140,960 or more taxable income

– Lower sales tax rate to 5.675 percent from 6.785 percent while taking more

– Increase the current $1.23-cent cigarette tax by 94 cents per pack

– $80 million more in Local Government Aid, $40 million more in county aid and $5 million for township aid

– Greater Minnesota internship program tax credit established